Two of the world’s most famous Alpha males – President Trump and Vladimir Putin — are in each other’s space in Helsinki, and it is a sight to behold. As they walk and talk, sit and gesture, there is a lot more going on than meets the eye. Or perhaps that’s just the point. Viewers of this massive display of power are subconsciously registering more information than merely what is coming out of the mouths of these two men. One could go as far as to say what’s being said is ancillary to the information being put out by the two leaders.
Non-verbal Communication Power Plays
Interpersonal communication not only involves the spoken word, but rather a whole host of unspoken messages. These implicit messages are called non-verbal behaviors; such behaviors indicate just about every human emotion from confidence to anxiety and are often meant as subtle power plays.
Human communication includes facial expressions, the tone and pitch of voice, physical gestures like eye-contact, and the actual distance between the people. These non-speaking signals add clues and meaning to language. Research shows that the three elements of communication – words, tone, and body language — are not of equal importance. Here’s a fun quiz for you:
- Words account for ________% of the overall message.
- Tone of voice accounts for ________% of the overall message.
- Body Language accounts for ________% of the overall message.
We’ll get to the answers in a moment. But first, let’s briefly review the Trump-Putin communication continuum in Helsinki. According to body language expert Judi James, “Both men arrived performing the kind of alpha posturing you normally see in a boxing ring, swaggering with puffed chests and in Trump’s case a mouth clamp plus what was bordering on a scowl to camera as both pulled at their jackets in what is commonly a ‘prepare to fight’ ritual,” she told the U.K. Express.
The Devil is in the Details
As the two men sat down together, President Trump appears to wink at Putin with the eye that is not facing the camera. Body language experts provide a variety of reasons for winking. It could be an intimate “gesture of fun,” or as “a negotiation ploy to get the other side fired up.” It could also send a message of, “Here we go with the public show.” As a master negotiator who knows how to read and connect with people on multiple levels, it could be that Mr. Trump was sending Putin all three messages at once.
Mr. Putin, meanwhile, is beaming multiple messages to Trump while listening to the president’s opening remarks. He gives a little nod as if to say, “I agree, and I’m listening.”
Later at the news conference, the two men walk in and just as Putin begins to speak, Trump rubs his ear. Experts say this likely means that Trump has a lot to say and is itching to talk rather than listen. For his part, Putin shifts quite a bit from one foot to the other as he’s making his opening statement. That shift indicates, “that you’re nervous or upset,” according to Carol Kinsey Goman, a psychologist, and author of The Nonverbal Advantage.
If all of this sounds a little far-fetched, it’s not. Study after study by experts for decades reveals surprisingly similar results: that communicating with someone happens on multiple levels. If you are still a skeptic, look at the answers to our quiz:
- Words account for 7% of the overall message.
- Tone of voice accounts for 38% of the overall message.
- Body Language accounts for 55% of the overall message.
These percentages can be startling to those of us who believe that all that matters are the words coming out of someone’s mouth. While talk does matter, it is not the end all and be all. In this day and age when just about everything is recorded for all the world to see, and the media only goes a mile wide and an inch deep, it’s good to dig deep every once in a while below the surface.